I think of Clarice Beckett often. Not so much for the early 20th century painter’s exquisite, misty seaside landscapes. Instead I think of Beckett because she was a single childless woman upon whom the burden of care for elderly parents fell.
Beckett, considered by some to be Australia’s greatest female artist, lived with her parents for her entire adult life and, as they grew frailer and sicker, her days were increasingly consumed with housekeeping and nursing duties. To hold on to her own life and purpose, she would leave the family’s bayside Melbourne home at dawn to paint, return for a day of chores, then at dusk venture out again, trundling her painting trolley.
We cannot know Beckett’s feelings about her housekeeping and nursing roles, nor her feelings about how the time she had for her work was curtailed. She was the oldest daughter. Her only sibling, Hilda, was married with children. It was the natural order of things that the “spinster” daughter would assume such duties.
Remarkably, nearly a century later, it is still the natural order of things that caring duties for elderly parents (and sometimes siblings) disproportionately falls on single, childless daughters (let’s leave the word spinster out of this). I am one of those daughters. I know this too well.
Women, in general, take on a greater burden of care across the board. But a 2020 Australian study found that single women over 45 without children take on more caring responsibilities for family members who are ageing or have a disability than any other group in their age cohort – partnered people, people with children or men.
The study focused on the economic security of single, older women and shattered the myth that women without children have uninterrupted careers and therefore healthy retirement savings. “A large proportion of the women in our analysis did have career interruptions but they had them later in life,” says Myra Hamilton, the study’s lead author and an associate professor at the University of Sydney.
The weight of expectations
Women involved in the survey’s focus group reported that their families expected them to take on caring responsibilities. “The way it was talked about was that it was highly naturalised as just what should happen,” Hamilton says. “Many talked of brothers having an expectation that, because they were the sister, they would take on more of the care responsibilities.
“The other major factor was that they didn’t have children so there was either an explicit or implicit expectation within the family that they must be freer and more flexible with their time.”
One woman I interviewed told me that despite being in her peak earning years and the only one of her siblings to still be working (her three brothers are retired) – and despite living the farthest from her mother – the bulk of care decisions and visits fall on her. “I find the emotional and physical and psychological load very heavy to bear,” she says.
Brisbane social worker Nicole* is single and childless not by choice but by circumstance. She unsuccessfully tried to conceive using IVF on her own. Now she is caring for her ageing parents.
“There’s the idea that if you don’t have children, you’re not really that busy. I’m constantly told about how parents are juggling lots of balls, but the work I do supporting a friend with addiction, checking on my elderly aunt or offering extra support to work colleagues is pretty invisible,” Nicole says. “I think the important things here are about expectations, choice and recognition of single childless women who have the option to do this, not have it thrust upon them.”
Companion, cook and groundskeeper
In my own situation, I have seen no other choices. For more than 15 years, since my early 40s, I have flown back and forth between Sydney and Queensland and devoted countless months attending to often traumatic issues related to my parents: years of their undone taxes; my father’s mental health problems, his cancer diagnosis, his death; the sale of a sprawling family home and its insane volume of contents (a result of my parents’ collecting/hoarding habits); and now the care of my lonely 87-year-old mother who lives in an ageing beach house that needs constant maintenance.
My mother is robustly healthy, mentally and physically, and manages well on a day-to-day basis. But she needs help with anything too complicated. I am her part-time companion and cook, her factotum, her building and grounds manager, her bookkeeper, PA, tech-support line. I call her almost every day. My one sibling, my brother, also lives in Sydney, married with three children.
Once when my father was still alive he wrote an email to me about something. “My dear put-upon daughter,” he started the message. More than a decade ago, Dad was able to see the load I was carrying and would carry into the future.
As I wait at the airport for my flight home after a visit to work for Mum, I frequently order a double G&T and fret about the years that lie ahead for Mum and me. I think about Clarice Beckett.
I do what I do for the love of my parents. I don’t love doing it. I rail against it, especially for the deleterious effect it has on my work, the writing projects neglected in bottom drawers. My mother bears no resemblance to a sweet little old lady. I bear no resemblance to an angel.
My emotions and stress levels run wild. Perhaps like the emotions of Chrys Stevenson, a 65-year-old Queensland researcher who cared for her mother for 12 years after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Through her caring years she dealt with panic attacks, hypervigilance and exhaustion. “After she died I went to bed for six months,” Stevenson tells me. “It’s been four years now and I’ve only just recovered.”
‘A vexed issue’
Of course, for every childless female carer there is a separate and singular complex of attendant feelings. Some women I spoke with felt it was an honour and privilege to care for their parents in their final days, or that the process held redemptive possibility. Kerstin Pilz, a 60-year-old author and creative writing coach who travels from Mission Beach in Queensland back to Europe each year for several weeks to stay with her elderly parents in her home town near Frankfurt, accepts that the caring falls to her even though she has a brother who still lives in Germany.
“I’ve been resentful towards my parents for a long time,” says Pilz. “So I hope that this for us will actually be an opportunity for reconciliation, so that we can sort of have this peacefulness.”
Jane*, a 50-year-old Sydney public relations executive, quit her job and moved into her parents’ home after her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. For nine months, Jane ran between helping her mother in the family home and a nearby aged care facility where her father was declining with dementia.
“I did it fully out of love, not duty, but it was intense,” says Jane, whose three siblings live in the country and are partnered with children. “I can’t even believe that I was able to survive those months when my father was threatening self-harm because he didn’t want to be in care and my mother was learning to walk and talk again and going in for all the horrible treatments.” (Jane’s mother died at home in 2019 after which she turned her focus to her father and nursing-home visits; he died in 2021.)
Jane struggles to unravel the complexities of sibling and parent relationships and caring duties. “This is such a vexed issue and plays into so many assumptions about single, childless women,” Jane says. “My lovely sister couldn’t understand why every time she said, ‘I need to get home to my family’, it hurt me like a thumbtack in my heel. Gosh, I always thought Mum, Dad and I were her family too.”
She identifies another thread in the emotional tangle: “Mum and Dad were my family and I was losing them both. What else would I do but care for them? I think I put the love and care that I’d have given my own children into them … It’s been a big job trying to work out what to do with that love.”
The story of an Adelaide woman I interviewed, 56-year-old Louise*, illustrates the array of complex issues single, childless women can deal with while caring for elderly parents. Even as she takes on the greatest part of caring for her frail 86-year-old widowed mother (she has three siblings), a legal dispute over an inheritance continues to splinter family relationships. “The story is just like this sort of web of fracture.”
The experience has taken a toll on Louise: the difficulty of the situation was one of the reasons a former partner cited for ending their relationship. Alongside an “overarching sense” of grief, she feels a completely different version of herself now.
Meanwhile, Louise continues to care for her mother. Once a month for the past decade she has done the four-hour drive between Adelaide and the town where her mother lives. On a recent Sunday evening, she received a call to say her mother was on the way to hospital after a suspected stroke. Louise jumped in her car and hit the highway. Twice that week, she did round trips between city and country. Her brother lives 15 minutes from their mother’s home.
“My life ethos has changed from a sense of living in freedom and morphed into responsibility and integrity,” Louise says. “And I’m staring down the barrel of probably having to be totally self-sufficient, physically, emotionally, financially and mentally.”
It’s something else that Hamilton’s research uncovered. “The older single women in our study were providing a lot of care but they were extremely anxious about how they would have their own care needs met as they aged and deeply worried about where they would live,” Hamilton says. “Some of them talked about feeling as though there was an inevitability about the fact that they may need to move into a residential aged-care facility before they were ready because no one was going to be available to provide them with the care and support that they needed.”
Beckett died in 1935 after contracting pneumonia when she was 48 – she had been out painting when a winter storm struck. Thus, I imagine that she was, at least, spared from night terrors about what would become of her as she aged.
* Some names and identifying details have been changed.